Joyce Carol Oates’ Scariest People: The world premiere of The Tattooed Girl at Theater J
“People think I’m prolific,” laughs Joyce Carol Oates, “but actually I work long hours and I’m very patient and fastidious.” In addition to her countless novels, short stories, and essays, Oates’ self-professed “love of writing” has also graced numerous stages across the world.
Her latest play, The Tattooed Girl, which she wrote in conjunction with a novel of the same name, makes its world premiere this month at Washington, DC’s Theater J and runs through February 20. “The theatrical landscape is littered with novelists with broken hearts on the Broadway stage,” says Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, “from Henry James to Joseph Heller. But Joyce continues to burnish her craft in the theater with ever-more impressive results.”
At the core of The Tattooed Girl is the improbable relationship between Joshua Siegl, a renowned Jewish writer in ill health who is the child of Holocaust survivors, and Alma Busch, an uneducated, abused woman marked by hideous tattoos who he hires as his unlikely assistant. The play’s director, John Vreeke, remarks of Oates and her characters, “I love that this soft-spoken, lovely person can write some of the scariest people in literature.”
What might be some of the similarities you share with your protagonist, Joshua Siegl?
We’re the same but different. I don’t write about myself exactly, but I’ll take an experience or a subject or a theme that is important to me and change around the details. In Siegl, I created a portrait of someone who is aware of his Jewish background, but is ambivalent and troubled by it. With me, I did not discover that my father’s mother was Jewish until I was in my 50s. Unlike Siegl, I was deprived of any awareness about the Jewish culture. Religion is not just about beliefs, but about a whole culture, about customs a family shares every year. I didn’t have that growing up, or even later in life. So Siegl’s situation is very different. In some ways, his is the opposite of mine because in his awareness of his Jewish heritage he feels a certain burden.
I understand that this play is not an adaptation of your novel of the same name, in fact you wrote both at the same time …
Yes, when I have a dramatic novel, I like to write the play at the same time. I begin with a scene with dialogue – there’s a certain dynamism in drama that I try to have in my prose fiction, too. Then I write a prose version of the same scene which is much longer. I do this chapter by chapter until the end. I wrote my novel Blonde and the play that became Miss Golden Dreams this way. I like working like this, although I can’t write all my novels this way; not all my novels have that kind of dramatic intensity. I have used this process to a lesser extent with other books, but I didn’t always have a play at the end.
How do you decide which novel might also make a good play?
If you take any novel, you can break it down into basic dramatic components. Those components could always become a little play – but not all components add up to an actual evening of theater.
Since your collaboration began with Theater J last year, Tattooed Girl the play apparently has a new ending quite different from Tattooed Girl the novel. Without giving too much away, what are some of the differences?
The play is further developed than the novel. In the original draft of the play, it had the same ending as in the novel, but I was never happy with it: I found it was too stark and abrupt for the stage. In the play, Alma is more elastic and open to change than she is in the novel. I wanted to show someone changing before your eyes on stage. I stayed with Alma a little longer and now the new ending is very plausible and believable.
What might people who read your novel get from seeing the complementary play?
Once a novel is finished, it’s published and goes out in world. A play is always in development. Every time a play is performed, it continues to develop as I continue to revise. That’s what’s so wonderful about the theater. I think if Chekhov were still alive, I’m sure he would continue to revise. Theater is electric – it’s changing all the time.
What draws you to the theater?
I love drama. I love to transform prose fiction into drama if I can. I love to work with actors, directors, other artists. I tend to be linear so it’s wonderful for me to work with people like that. Drama is more exciting, whereas prose can be extremely exhausting and difficult and frustrating. When I write prose, I have no collaborators, so the process is very solitary. With playwriting, it’s already a semi-public experience from the beginning with readings and workshops. I think the playwriting process is like opening up the windows and letting the fresh air come in.
Both the director, John Vreeke, and Theater J’s Ari Roth are thrilled about how collaborative this process has been …
Plays are outlines or skeletons for other artists to work with: as the playwright, I provide this outline or skeleton, and then I leave that to the judgment of others to flesh it out. As a prose writer, I have complete control of my fiction, but with theater, the director – and others – might have their own vision and I don’t want to interfere with that.
Do you have a preference for writing either fiction or plays?
I’ve worked so much with prose fiction all my life that I couldn’t really say. But I think because I’m not a full-time playwright, I can enjoy the process more and not be anxious. I can spend a lot of time working on plays because I can do it purely for pleasure. I’m not doing it to establish a career in the theater.
But certainly you do have a career in the theater!
I don’t really have a prominent career. It’s something I love but don’t have to depend upon for my life, so to speak. I have my prose fiction and I teach [at Princeton].
And if one of your students came to you for playwriting advice?
Go see lots of plays and get to know actors and directors. You have to get into the theater world because it’s a complete culture of its own. Writing prose fiction is different. You can go to Montana and work on a novel and you could do fine. But for writing plays, you need to be around artistic people and near a theater – you need to have that sense of community.
Author interview: A condensed version of this interview appeared in the January 2005 issue of American Theatre magazine
Published: 2003 (novel), 2005 (theater premiere)